Tom Stoppard: An Introduction

by Victor L. Cahn, Associate Professor of English

    Tom Stoppard's playwrighting career embodies a fascinating clash of opposites. In an interview, he once said, "I don't write plays for discussion." Yet his writings have been the subject of dozens of academic books and hundreds of critical articles. He has also commented "I've never felt . . . that art is important." Yet many of his characters continually ponder the significance of theater, indeed, the significance all the arts, as part of a perpetual search for meaning.

    He is regarded as the most intellectual dramatist of our time, and his works are permeated with cultural allusions and a remarkable depth of scholarship in a dizzying array of fields. Yet his formal education ended after the second year of high school. Finally, despite Stoppard's stature as a "serious" playwright, his writings overflow with fun: parodies, puns, and verbal byplay across multiple languages.

    To encapsulate the work of any artist in a few paragraphs is difficult. One place to begin with Stoppard, however, is to recognize that after he left school at the age of seventeen, he worked for a few years as a journalist, including several months as a drama critic. This career seems to have inspired in him an almost scientific curiosity about people's behavior, a fascination with how they attempt to maintain personal, emotional, and intellectual balance as they wander through the uncertainties of life. Indeed, the main characters in virtually all his plays conduct a perpetual struggle to affirm their beliefs and values in a bewildering world.

    Nowhere is this theme more evident than in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), Stoppard's first international success. Here he dramatizes the plight of two peripheral characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as they meander in and out of the turmoil that ravages the Danish court of Elsinore. The two men are unaware that Prince Hamlet has been ordered by his father's Ghost to revenge the murder of this father, the King, at the hands of Claudius, now ruler of Denmark and husband of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Nor have they any sense of the social, political, religious, and sexual implications of this crisis. All they know is that they have been summoned to discover why Hamlet, their old school chum, seems so distressed. Stoppard weaves scenes from Shakespeare with his own sparkling dialogue, creating a memorable portrait of two little men who seek to understand a world hopelessly beyond their ken.

    From time to time, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter some Players who entertain at Hamlet's court, and at those moments, the two lost souls tend to regard themselves as actors on the stage of life. This theme is developed further in one of Stoppard's most successful short plays, The Real Inspector Hound (1968), in which two theater critics, casually reviewing a preposterous thriller, are drawn reluctantly into the conflict onstage. On one level, Hound is a delightful spoof of critical jargon and the pomposity that characterizes Stoppard's former profession. Yet more subtly it suggests how any of us, thinking ourselves safe from the hubbub of the world, may nonetheless be whisked unwillingly and even fatally into the chaos.

    Stoppard's next major play, Jumpers (1972), accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of bringing the world of contemporary philosophy to the theatre. Throughout the play, the protagonist, who shares the name of twentieth-century British philosopher G. E. Moore, prepares for an academic debate on the nature of moral values. His ruminations are frequently interrupted, however, by the shenanigans of a troupe of renegade gymnast/philosophers who, believe it or not, have seized the British government. Part of the background to these bizarre goings-on is the 1969 landing on the moon, and the way that this event, so Stoppard suggests, altered humanity's perception of itself. The play is ultimately a reaction against the modern denial of values, and an affirmation that something inherent within us makes us human, and allows us to maintain faith in goodness and beauty.

    Stoppard's first attempt to create historical drama was Travesties (1974), which uses as a starting point the coincidence that novelist James Joyce, Russian revolutionary Lenin, and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara all lived in Zurich, Switzerland during World War I. No historical evidence indicates that the three ever encountered one another, but in Stoppard's imagination they do so. The text is complicated by the use of an elderly narrator, whose frazzled memory muddles details of plot beyond description. In the midst of the confusion, though, we may discern parallels between the goals of the artistic revolutionary and those of the political revolutionary, as well as the need for all individuals to establish a purpose for their existence.

    These brief outlines suggest some of the themes that have buttressed Stoppard's extensive dramatic output. In more recent works, he has moved through a great range of political, social, religious, and scientific issues, many of which may be found in Arcadia, along with perspectives on Time, Poetry, Love, and other subjects too numerous to elucidate here. Perhaps the most important point to remember, though, is that no matter how intellectually daunting the material, Arcadia is, in fact, a "play," and that at its foundation lies a joy and creative energy to be found uniquely in the magic of theater.

Victor L. Cahn is Associate Professor of English at Skidmore College and author of Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard